I hadn't heard of Julia Child before I visited the US last month. Now, after a series of Julia-related incidences and coincidences, I feel I know this remarkable woman well.
First, I saw Julie & Julia. Next, while visiting the Smithsonian in Washington with my friend Ellen (we spent most of the time in the shop), I stumbled on Child's kitchen, which she donated to the museum in 2001. Then I found myself on Olive Avenue, a street in Georgetown, DC, lined with cute clapboard house where – I later discovered – Child used to live.
But best of all, I read her memoir, My Life In France, and discovered a spirited, curious, no-nonsense, sexual, determined woman: extremely tall, extremely loud and very, very funny.
Child was America's more fabulous answer to Elizabeth David. She bought French cooking to Americans – then just discovering the delights of meals-on-a-plate – in the form of her best-selling 1961 book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She went on to host, exuberantly, several series of cookery programmes. She died in 2004, two days before her 92nd birthday.
Her husband, Paul Child, was posted to France in 1948, and Julia fell instantly in love with the country, its people and, most of all, its food. She found everything "terribly exciting" in a Joyce Grenfell, hockey-sticks sort of way, and was unfazed and amused by most things life threw at her.
She started lessons at Cordon Bleu – and found her calling. She spent hours at home, experimenting. On mastering mayonnaise she wrote: "I thought it was utterly fascinating. By the end of my research, I believe, I had written more on the subject of mayonnaise than anyone in history. I made so much mayonnaise that Paul and I could hardly bear to eat it anymore, and I took to dumping my test batches down the toilet." She sent her tried-and-tested recipe to friends in the US. "All I received in response was a yawning silence. Hm! I was miffed, but not deterred. Onward I plunged," she wrote.
Above all, I loved Julia and Paul's relationship. They had enormous fun together. Everything and everyone had a nickname: their apartment on 81 Rue de l'Universite in Paris was christened 'Roo de Loo'. Their Buick station wagon was 'The Blue Flash' – mutating into a verb ("We Flashed into Rouen..."). They posed for silly photos on Valentine's Day (see below, in 1956). They were deeply in love, an apparent meeting of souls.
They met while working for the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA, during the Second World War, first in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), then China. He was 42, cultured, a "natty dresser" and dated lots of women. She was 32, inexperienced but game. They discovered a shared love of trying exotic food. "I was lucky to marry Paul," she wrote. "I hated being without my husband. Paul and I liked to travel at the same slow pace. He always knew so much about things, discovered hidden wonders, noticed ancient walls or indigenous smells, and I missed his warm presence. Once upon a time I had been content as a single woman, but now I couldn't stand it!"
It has been written that meeting Paul was the point in her life when Julia was found. "I was a late bloomer who was still growing up. I didn't get started on life until I was about thirty-two, which was good because I was old enough to appreciate it. I had it all ahead of me."
Photograph (top) by Arnold Newman, 1970.